Rushton impressed by Indian swimmers’ energy and technique

The 68-year-old veteran coach discusses the upcoming Olympics, Michael Phelps, doping in the sport, the physiology of swimming, the ideal pathway for India's growth, and the Glenmark academy's ambitious plans for the future.

Rushton is now in India as Technical Director (Coaching) of the Glenmark Aquatic Foundation in Mumbai.   -  Sudhakara Jain

Clive Rushton competed in the 1972 Olympic Games for Great Britain, but his abiding memory from Munich is not of his efforts in the men's 100m backstroke. Instead, for Rushton and a generation of athletes, that edition of the Games will forever be associated with the attacks on the Israeli team by the Palestinian terrorist group Black September.

But what the Englishman also recalls is the dominance of the pool by a Jewish American swimmer called Mark Spitz. Even four decades on, he speaks of those events with a great familiarity and clarity.

Rushton is now in India as Technical Director (Coaching) of the Glenmark Aquatic Foundation in Mumbai. Glenmark, which has a long-term sponsorship deal with the Swimming Federation of India, has grand plans for Indian swimming — plans that Rushton will seek to put into action. He arrived in the country in June, with a hugely impressive CV as a coach in swimming's upper echelons. Rushton's work as coach has taken in stints as National coach/ High Performance Director with the Great Britian, Greece and New Zealand teams, where he has overseen the development of Olympic medallists.

In Bengaluru for the Sub-Junior and Junior National aquatic championships, Rushton sits down with Sportstar at the Basavanagudi Aquatic Centre, for a chat on a diverse range of subjects. The 68-year-old discusses the upcoming Olympics, Michael Phelps, doping in the sport, the physiology of swimming, the ideal pathway for India's growth, and the Glenmark academy's ambitious plans for the future.

The excerpts:

Question: You swam at the 1972 Games. Does the massacre live on in your memory?

Answer: It sticks out a lot, doesn’t it? When people ask me that question, I get goosebumps. It’s been 40-odd years, but I still get goosebumps talking about it. The swimming events had finished. So it didn’t affect swimming at all. But other sports were affected. They had a one-day break, when they had the memorial service. They played Beethoven’s Sinfonia Eroica there, and even today when I hear that, the hairs on my arms stand up. From the swimming point of view, it was all about Mark Spitz — seven gold medals, seven world records — and a good friend of mine, Roland Matthes of West Germany, who retained his 100 and 200m backstroke titles — a double double.

What was it like watching Mark Spitz?

I had seen him swim a lot of times, around the world. He had broken a world record in England a year before, at Crystal Palace. He was a remarkable, natural swimmer. I suspect his coaches didn't have to do a lot of stroke work with him because his feel of the water was so good and his breathing patterns were completely random.

In butterfly, you advise the swimmers to have a breathing pattern, once every two strokes or whatever it is. But his was completely random. He would just breathe when he wanted to; he was just so good and so flexible that it would never affect his strokes. He was not a particularly popular swimmer, though.

What is your greatest memory of the Olympics?

It was shaking hands with Muhammad Ali. Nothing can get bigger than that. It was at the 1996 Atlanta Games, a day after the opening ceremony where he lit the torch. And sport is like that, isn’t it? It gets you around the world, meeting different people, experiencing different things. A lot of people say, “You might have sacrificed a lot for this.” You don’t sacrifice anything; you gain.

What have you made of the swimming at these National championships?

I've been very pleasantly surprised. That's not to say I was expecting bad swimming or low-level swimming. I've been very surprised by the standard. It's been very good. Two things have impressed me.

The first is the stroke techniques — I did expect that to be low level, I came in with a preconception there, because worldwide you tend to see that. A lot of coaches focus on just work, work, work and don't bother about technique. But certainly the finalists here, their technique was pretty solid across the board.

The second thing that impressed me was the energy levels in the races. With young kids, sometimes you see them pacing themselves and saving themselves a little bit but I didn't see that. I saw some real competitive fight in the little kids. There seemed to be a genuine urge to swim fast. That's great. Because you can't put that in; you can't buy it in a shop and give it to them. It's either there or not there.

What's lacking in Indian swimming?

I've only been in the country now for two and a half weeks. I've got to work out what is missing and why those kids that look great from the ages of 9 to 14, cannot carry on right the way through. A lot of people tell me that's because of the academics. But other countries manage to do both successfully. If it is the academics, there will be a way to circumvent it. I see tremendous potential, but I've got to work out what happens after they are 17. Because the world's top swimmers are in their mid twenties, both male and female. They're gradually getting older and older as there's more money available. On the World Cup circuit last year, one Hungarian girl (Katinka Hosszu) topped a million dollars in prize money. So if you're good, swimming is now worthwhile. That's pushed the ages up a bit.

So what do the good swimming nations — America, Australia, and perhaps China — do well?

You said China — I don't think they're doing too much right, to be honest. They're doing a lot of things that are wrong, very wrong and illegally wrong. I've got no qualms about saying that. They're a mess, and so are Russia. The feeling in the swimming community is that Russian swimming should not be allowed into Rio, because it's just been a disaster. And the Chinese — no one thinks they're clean, no one.

The U.S. — they manage to keep their people going because of the University system. It's probably the best talent retention model ever made. Some of the eastern countries had good talent identification models, but in terms of talent retention, the U.S. has got it right for 40-50 years. And swimming in Australia is almost as popular as cricket. During the 1500m race in the Atlanta Olympics, the whole country stopped because that was their traditional event. Literally, the whole of Australia stopped. And everyone watched a 15-minute swimming race from start to finish on TV. You wouldn't find that anywhere else. Swimming is seen as a real shop window sport for the Australian lifestyle. That's where they get a lot of their strength. But they also have a tremendously capable coaching group, mainly in Queensland.

What should a country like India do to improve its swimming?

The first thing is raising awareness of what is possible, changing the mindset. I get the impression that people think, 'Yeah, the swimming could be faster,' but I don't think they really believe they can be a whole lot faster. They can. They're really the same as any other kids. You've got tall kids, short kids, kids with big hands and big feet. Every country is basically all the same. From the swimmers' viewpoint I see no reason why the swimmers can't be up there and why the standards can't rise dramatically over the next few years. The tendency is that the competitive system is not designed correctly to steer them on a correct pathway, or the coaching is sub-standard. That's what normally is the case. I'm not saying that it is the case here. But from what I saw last week, the coaching appears quite good.

The competitive system probably needs some looking at, in terms of co-ordination between the various levels and bodies. At first glance, it seems there are gaps in the year where there is no meaningful competition. And competition's a special form of training. You can stress the swimmers differently with competition than you ever get from them in training. It's important that it happens frequently and the right level of competition is given to them. That's one of the things that could help. But retaining the older swimmers is the biggest thing in raising all the standards. And maybe throwing some different incentives at them will help.

The third thing is coach education. I'm impressed by what I see but nobody in swimming knows everything. The more you know, the more you realize you don't know. It's such a complex thing. The water changes everything. It's unlike any other sport. Even water sports like sailing and canoeing have a fixed hull and they can design it deliberately. But we can't design our bodies deliberately. Every time they move an arm or breathe, the hull shape changes. The problems swimmers have to deal with are way ahead of the magnitude of problems other sports have to deal with. The water changes everything. It's 800 times denser than air. So it's raising their awareness, making them believe they can swim that much faster, and the coach's job is to give them the work, put the challenges, the carrot, just ahead of them all the time. Just nurture them through the challenges. They have to be challenged through every training session.

You've been in the sport for nearly 50 years. You've been one of the loudest voices against doping. What is the doping scene like in international swimming?

It's got worse. It's got drastically worse. It just sickens you. It gives you a bad feeling. The problem of course is that whenever anyone does a good swim, you're not sure anymore. So until the IOC and WADA really get on top of it and are ruthless with their sanctions, then it's going to continue. With the problems we've had with Russia and China in swimming, there is a build-up. I sense that worldwide. People have now had enough. Allowing swimmers back in after they've been on a suspension, sometimes a few months — everyone is saying this is nonsense. If you ask me, I'd say four years for a first offence and life for a second. But it's got to be ruthless, hardline. Some people will test positive and it will be accidental, but I'm sorry, the sport is worth much more than that one person. I do sense a groundswell of willingness to do something. But FINA and the national governing bodies have to take the lead.

Looking ahead to Rio, who do you think the standout performers will be?

Katie Ledecky and Michael Phelps, there’s no question about that. Then there’s the British breaststroke guy, Adam Peaty. He broke two world records last year (50m and 100m breaststroke); and he didn't just break them, he obliterated them. He is devastating. My friends in Britain tell me that he’s looking scary, genuinely scary. The Brits were down in Australia for a training camp in Nov-Dec. And I know that one of the sets he did there...the times he did on this set, you could hardly believe that someone could do that time. He’s on fire. He's special. But then he’s a one-event swimmer as there’s no 50m breaststroke at the Olympics.

But Katie Ledecky is going to set standards at these Games. She broke the 800m freestyle world record in December clocking 8:06 and the next fastest girl is 8:14. Rebecca Adlington has retired. So nobody is going to get near her; unless she breaks a leg, she'll win.

So the gold is not the topic of discussion here. What I think is that she’ll go close to the eight-minute mark and my bet is she'll go under eight minutes and that is in the realms of the unbelievable. She's already under four minutes for the 400 and she could win the 200. And the 200, 400, and 800 for women hasn't been done since Mexico 1968.

It's only ever been done once. About Phelps, everyone — except for his competitors — hopes that things will come right for him at Rio. He galvanizes the whole squad. He made his comeback last year, but then he couldn’t swim the Worlds because they (US federation) banned him for drunk driving. He then swam the US Nationals a week after the Worlds and put himself at No.1 in the world in three separate events. And everyone I know went “YES!”. Nobody wants him to fail; everyone wants him to be as spectacular as he’s been over the years. He’s probably the greatest competitor in any sport ever, for that pure will to win from deep, deep down. And that showed in Beijing in the 100 butterfly. He was sixth at the turn and second at 99.9999999m, and still won.

Michael Phelps has come back after retiring. How hard is that to do?

He's 30 now. His partner has just has a kid. His break wasn't that long. He actually wasn't training much before London. That's why he won a few events but got beaten as well. His natural talent and his training background carried him through. Because, his training background is just brutal. Before Beijing, he trained every single day for five years. He hadn't missed a day in five years. Most swimmers miss one day a week, and it's deliberate. Christmas Day, birthday, it didn't matter what it was; he trained. So his training background is huge and the residual effect of that carried him through. His coach says that he is training since he came back this time has been the old Michael Phelps again. He's hungry for it again and he should be after London, because he got beaten in his favourite event, the 200 fly. If he really has been training like he used to before Beijing, he'll turn on something very special again in Rio.

How much does physiology, and how a swimmer is built matter? Should we be out there looking for taller swimmers?

World-class swimmers do tend to be tall. Some of the world-class women swimmers are 6'2” to 6'3”. Most of the top guys will be 6'3” to 6'7”. So they are big people. But I always say: 'Being 7'6” doesn't give you a free Olympic gold medal. And being 5'6” doesn't say you can't have one.' Because it's about more than that. But it is an advantage being tall and thin, because of the water. That makes all the rules. That's why racing yachts are long and thin. Because that's water friendly. Tall, thin swimmers have an advantage. But it doesn't give you the win. There's other stuff as well. The physiology: if you've got a big stroke volume, that is if you pump a lot of blood with every heartbeat, you're going to get more oxygen to the muscles more often than someone who's got a small stroke volume. So the physiology and the anatomy do come into it, of course. You can get two swimmers and give them exactly the same training and one will respond more than the other one. To me, that's real talent. Because it's there before you're born, it's God-given, for want of a better term. And you can't put that in. You can put the training, psychology and stroke technique in, but if you've got natural advantages as well — big hands and big feet, flexible ankles and shoulders — then your training is going to produce more results than someone else's. The combinations of all those are where you end up with a Michael Phelps or a Mark Spitz — all the strange things, the big feet, the extreme flexibility, the great training, a great coach...all added together.

Those are outliers. You can't base a model on that because they don't exist anywhere else. They exist once every 20 years in one country.

What are your plans for the future with Glenmark?

I'm drawing up a long term plan for Glenmark Aquatic Foundation. It is unique what they're doing; it’s remarkable. I haven't seen this sort of initiative in any country in the world. We've got two centres — one in Mumbai and one in Delhi. The Delhi one is residential. We'd like to open one centre each year in the future but we haven't finalized that yet. We're thinking of that. In terms of swimmer progression, tests, identification, training, special tests, nutrition, and maybe introducing a new type of competition to help stimulate their competitive aspect, we've got plans. Coach education — I've got some very strong ideas on that, because at the moment no country in the world is getting that right. The countries that do their own certification are USA, Canada, Australia and Britain. Most other countries use their systems. They're all locked into models they've been using for 10, 20, 30 years. They're about swimming in the past, not the future. I'd like to introduce a new system on that. Because India uses other countries' systems at the moment. The key secret to the longevity of any success is the coaches. If I take a group of 20 swimmers, I will affect 20 swimmers. If I take a group of 20 coaches, I will affect 400 swimmers. If they've got their assistant coaches you're into 800 or 1600 swimmers. The facility doesn't make the performance, the coaches do. But we're looking into everything: the infrastructure, the finance, possibly the prize money, the types of competition, and the number of centres.

What's with the Olympic-rings-styled ring on your finger?

It's an Olympic ring; it's not made by the Olympic committee. They hate people copying their symbol. They actually take people to court for it. They can take me to court if they want, I don't mind. I got this in Montreal in 1976. The Canadian swim team started it. They actually present their swimmers rings, the federation gives them one.

When I was working in NZ, I introduced the same thing. I think it's a great tradition. Some countries I go to, nobody notices it. Here, almost everyone has mentioned it. I can't work out why but to me it indicates some fascination and it means something inside people. So the Olympic carrot could be the trigger that changes everything here.